NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican political newcomer Bill Lee on Saturday took the oath of office as the 50th governor of Tennessee, vowing not to solely look to government as the solution to the state’s most pressing challenges.
“As honored as I am to be your next governor, no governor will solve the problems — in fact, no government will solve the greatest problems that we face,” Lee said. “Government is not the answer to our challenges.”
Lee replaces term-limited GOP Gov. Bill Haslam, who choked up briefly while giving his final remarks as governor.
“So in about two hours, Crissy and I are going to be getting in a car and heading east on I-40. Two things to know about that. Number one, I haven’t driven in eight years…The second thing to know is this, and I will try not to choke up when I say this, there won’t be two more grateful people anywhere than the two in that car,” Haslam said, blinking back tears.
Both men received standing ovations from the crowded auditorium filled with former Tennessee governors, congressional delegation and Lee’s newly appointed cabinet.
Haslam is mulling a run for an open U.S. Senate seat next year. He has also been named a fellow at the Sine Institute of Policy & Politics at American University, where he’ll lead discussions and study sessions with students and participate in events.
“Mark my words, Bill Lee will be a great governor,” Haslam said.
Lee’s religious faith became a defining characteristic along the campaign trail. Before the swearing-in ceremony, Lee attended a packed worship service at the Grand Ole Opry, where multiple high-profile Christian musicians performed and prominent Tennessee politicians were in attendance.
Former Nashville Predators hockey player Mike Fisher and former NASCAR driver Darrell Waltrip were among the attendees of the worship services.
“There were some guys you didn’t trust,” Waltrip said in an analogy to his racing days. “You try to stay away from them, but the guys you can trust, you didn’t mind them putting their fender up next to your door, because you knew that they weren’t gonna wreck you. So, Bill is someone you can trust.”
At the ceremony, Lee’s pastor and campaign adviser, Steve Berger, gave a brief invocation. Berger raised eyebrows in the final months of the campaign for saying the Bible requires victims of sexual misconduct and other offenses to have at least two or three witnesses.
This forced Lee to respond soon after that such a requirement would not become the state standard under his administration.
“I believe that one way that we do unite is by following the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself,” Lee said as part of his inaugural speech. “In fact, I believe it is the key to American greatness. Our greatness has never come from government compulsion or power. It’s always come from our love for each other and our commitment to our fellow citizens and to our neighbors.”
Tennessee poet laureate Margaret Britton Vaughn provided an inaugural poem “Tennessee Is A Song.”
“His key unlocks freedom. His tempo a movement of love. We’re waiting Bill Lee; your turn to take the baton,” Vaughn wrote.
Lee was forced to move the inauguration indoors after forecasts warned of severe rain and thunderstorms. It was the first time the ceremony hadn’t taken place outdoors in front of the Capitol in more than 40 years.
At that time, it was for the inauguration of Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton — known for being ousted from office three days early in a “cash-for-clemency” scandal that’s still regarded as one of the biggest in Tennessee history.
Tennessee’s oath of office has remained largely unchanged over the years, a tradition that Lee kept on Saturday.
One exception was Gov. James C. “Lean Jimmy” Jones, who in 1841 also swore an oath to prohibit dueling. Not all new governors have made an inaugural address. In 1890, Willie Blount sent a written message to the Legislature instead of making a speech, saying he was “unaccustomed to addressing public assemblies.”
Among those who have made speeches, the shortest on record was by Isham Harris, who in 1857 said only: “I am ready to take the oath of office.” At the inauguration of Frank Goad Clement in 1963, a 19-gun salute set fire to the Capitol lawn.
Lee, a Franklin-based businessman, defeated former Democratic Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in November. It was the first time Lee had ever run for political office.
Two inaugural balls are planned in downtown Nashville for Lee later on Saturday.